Panel paints rosy ultra-wideband picture

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   March 6, 2002 at 2:42 PM

HERNDON, Va., March 6 (UPI) -- With the Federal Communications Commission's limited approval of a wireless technology called ultra-wideband, consumers soon will see a multitude of new devices, such as collision-avoidance radars for automobiles, experts said Wednesday.

The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology hosted the event to explore UWB's possibilities, said Jean Diehl Woods, CIT's director of advanced telecommunications and Internet infrastructure.

"Many interested parties have expressed concern (to the FCC) about interference and possible competition from ultra-wideband," Woods said. "We have to contrast those concerns with the electronics industry chomping at the bit ... trying to find a solution that's compatible for everyone."

Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, told the gathering ultra-wideband systems use low-power, short-duration transmissions over a very wide range of frequencies, as opposed to using a carrier wave in a specific band, such as with FM radio. This approach allows UWB transmissions to penetrate solid objects, and would let such devices operate in currently used spectrums, he said.

Many of the technology's applications had been put on hold because of worries their transmissions might interfere with existing devices, including the Global Positioning System, or compete with traffic in restricted frequency bands, Franca said. The FCC voted unanimously last month to start testing and licensing three types of UWB devices:

-- Imaging systems, such as ground-penetrating radar and through-wall imaging. The commission will work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on these devices.

-- Vehicular radar systems for collision avoidance and better airbag deployment.

-- Handheld communications or measurement devices.

Franca said the devices must operate primarily above 3.1 gigahertz, well outside the band used for GPS, and any inadvertent transmissions must be squelched at a level much more stringent than that for computer devices. The rules will be reviewed in six to 12 months, he said.

"This is a very conservative first step ... that will provide benefits to public and maintain U.S. technical leadership in this area," Franca said. "The limits we adopted certainly address the comments and concerns of GPS community."

Frederick Wentland, director of spectrum plans and policies at the NTIA, said setting the limits required a great deal of testing of UWB devices and examination of current uses. More than 90 percent of all government and private radio license holders transmit below 3.1 gigahertz, so restricting the technology's use of that spectrum was an easy choice, he said.

Those who disagree with the limits need to keep in mind the process was based on all the available scientific evidence on the subject, he said.

Bob Brewin, a veteran technology reporter, brought up the meeting's most unusual device -- a self-flushing device for home toilets already on the market. The ultra-wideband signal easily penetrates ceramic, so the device is installed inside the commode, out of sight, Brewin said.

Several speakers on the panel said the technology could have much wider applications than the FCC-approved choices. Robert Malloy, chief operating officer of MultiSpectral Solutions, a UWB developer in Virginia, said the extremely low power levels and very wide range of frequencies involved effectively hide transmissions from unauthorized listeners, making UWB ideal for secure communications systems.

Computer data networking was singled out as a particularly promising area for UWB development; since so many frequencies are involved, large amounts of data can quickly be transferred.

Geoffrey Anderson, vice president of advanced wireless technology at Sony Electronics, said a handheld UWB device conceivably could download the contents of an entire compact disc in less than a minute. The technology's low power needs also make it very attractive for home networks, several speakers said.

The FCC limits, however, could seriously curtail UWB development, said Samir Soliman, a vice president of technology at Qualcomm, the San Diego-based cell phone and electronics maker. Based on the frequencies available to UWB, combined with interference from existing devices, Soliman said a simple equation shows the new technology won't have enough range or power to effectively provide services such as home networking.

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